California's challenges are manifold. No single public official nor any one political reform can solve them all. But patience and persistence — and strong support from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — have laid the foundation for better, more responsive, more moderate and cooperative politics. The latest success — last week's passage of Proposition 20 and the even more important defeat of Proposition 27 — set in motion an experiment in citizen democracy worthy of this state's most commendable political impulses.
Proposition 27 was a do-over for the losers in a 2008 campaign, when Californians elected to strip members of the state Senate and Assembly of the power to draw legislative district lines. The inherent conflict in that process produced predictable results in the last redistricting: Democrats created seats that protected incumbent Democrats, and Republicans went along because Democrats cut a deal to create safe Republican seats as well.
The system favored incumbents of both parties, but it hardly needs noting that what is good for incumbents is not necessarily good for democracy. Incumbents who fear little from challengers in the other party — or even from their own — have little reason to compromise (except on redistricting). Again, the results have been entirely foreseeable. Democrats in safe seats curry favor with their base: unions, environmental groups, trial lawyers. Republicans in safe seats throw meat to theirs: the Chamber of Commerce, oil companies, police. To compromise is to risk defeat.
Voters saw through that in 2008, when they approved creation of a citizens commission to take over the line-drawing, and they reaffirmed that decision last week. Not only did they turn down Proposition 27, which would have abolished the commission and returned redistricting to the Legislature, but they also approved Proposition 20, which extends the commission's power to drawing lines for congressional seats as well as legislative ones.
With that, the commission has more power than ever, and can now return to the business it has been assigned. After reviewing thousands of applications and interviewing 120 candidates, the panel in late September forwarded the names of the 60 "most qualified" applicants to leaders of the Legislature. Twenty are Republicans, 20 are Democrats, 20 have no party affiliation. (For those keeping demographic score, the combined group includes 17 Latinos, 20 whites, 10 Asians, eight blacks, four American Indians or Alaskan Natives and one Pacific Islander.) Legislative leaders from each party may now strike up to two applicants from each party pool. Once that's done, the state auditor will draw eight names at random — three from among the Democrats, three from Republicans and two from the other group. Those eight members will pick the remaining six, two from each group. That 14-member commission will draw California's political lines next year, once it has been presented with the results of the 2010 census.
For some Republicans, the prospect of a neutral commission, selected by such painstakingly nonpartisan rules, offers the thrill of emancipation from Democratic dominance. They are right to cheer, but wrong to think that a revolution is at hand. As any observer of last week's election knows, California remains overwhelmingly Democratic and conspicuously unaffected by the national Republican trend.
Moreover, like-minded voters tend to concentrate. Meg Whitman, for instance, carried every county up the middle of the state even as Jerry Brown trounced her along the coast. Even the most cynical line-drawing will not create Republican districts in Marin or Democratic ones in Madera.
Neutral redistricting could and should produce a few more competitive districts in areas such as Ventura County, the Inland Empire, San Francisco's East Bay. Within the boundaries of the Voting Rights Act, which sets rules for ethnic representation, districts could also enhance or diminish the voting power of various demographic groups and thereby influence the work of their legislators. It will not upend California politics overnight, but it could make elected officials in some discrete areas more responsive.
That may not seem like much by itself. It's not. It occurs, however, within a larger context of political restructuring. Last week, Californians approved a measure to lower the legislative vote threshold for passing a state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority; that reform was as welcomed by Democrats as redistricting reform was by Republicans. Earlier this year, Californians abolished partisan primaries; from now on, the top two vote-getters in any state legislative race will face each other in a runoff, regardless of whether they are from different parties or the same one. That reform was vehemently opposed by both parties.
We have supported each of those measures — those favored by Democrats, those favored by Republicans, those opposed by both — as modest advances toward a bigger goal: a more competitive, less partisan state politics in which elected officials must appeal to the middle rather than protect themselves from the extremes. One step at a time, California, aided by its departing governor in some of his most important work, is moving toward that ideal.